Databases drive Texas Tribune traffic
Databases, surprisingly, are the biggest draw at The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a non-profit, nonpartisan public media organization that believes, in the words of their site, that "journalism in the public interest is too vital to a civilized society, to a functioning democracy, to be left to the vagaries of the free market."
Lofty words, indeed. But why databases?
"The biggest revelation for us has been that people don't just want news, they want knowledge," Evan Smith, EIC of The Texas Tribune, told Howie Kurtz on CNN's Reliable Sources this week. "They don't just want journalism, they want information. They want the tools to be better engaged and thoughtful and productive citizens. And one of the ways they get that information is through the databases. We now have more than 40 databases on our site on a range of topics ... they get more traffic than anything else we publish on the site."
The Texas Tribune's statewide government payroll app has been the most popular feature, attracting, at one point, one in five clicks to the site. Do people use this data in their own blogging? Is that what is driving the interest?
"Yes," replied Smith to an email from eMediaVitals.com, "but also for personal reasons: for instance, the many public school teachers whose salaries are listed in our public employee pay database are in a better position to negotiate with their superiors based on the knowledge of what their colleagues are making. Voters are using our data products to make better choice at election time. And reporters at other publications are generating stories off of our data as well."
So many papers have cut back on covering statehouses. Could the Texas Tribune model work in other states, or is its success particular to Texas? "I can't say," Smith answered. "Texas is different: it's more like a city with neighborhoods than a state with cities: the cohesiveness for a place this big is rather remarkable. Remember that I edited Texas Monthly for many years -- this is the only state with a successful statewide magazine, and there's a reason."
Evan Smith left the monthly after nearly 18 years -- serving as editor for eight. Smith is widely hailed as an editor who brought the magazine to national prominence. While there, he was twice awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Texas Monthly has been a regular finalist over the two decades of his leadership for the National Magazine Award for general excellence in its circulation category. His move to team with an Austin venture capitalist to form a statewide nonprofit news and politics site in 2009 was a surprise.
The pendulum swings. Nowadays The Texas Tribune collaborates with papers like The Dallas Morning News (which ran one of their stories last week) and the Houston Chronicle (on an investigation into statewide child abuse at residential treatment centers), though they were once wary of their competitor.
"We want to get our content in front of as many people as possible -- simple as that," Smith said. "And their reporters plus our reporters equals more good journalism than either one of us can produce independently. Everybody wins."